Book Reviews

Upping the Worm Game

Hemingway_wormsAs an amateur vermi-composter  – who has been raising worms for his own personal consumption for several years (that doesn’t sound quite right), I have recently been inspired to take my worm works operation to a new level. Heretofore I have been content with a simple, blue plastic tub, drilled with air holes and partially filled with red wiggler worms, selected food scraps, and newspaper. Shown here are the worms enjoying a print advertisement  promoting the Ernest Hemingway PBS documentary. Given the novelist’s fear of death, my worms appreciate the taste of irony, as much as avocado and melon rinds.

My renewed commitment began while I was browsing in the section of R.J. Ruppenthal’s Fresh Food from Small Places (2008), where he gives easy-to-follow instructions on how to build a simple worm operation for the home. Ruppenthal also does a shoutout for Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms (2005), which he describes as “not a ‘how-to book’, but a reflection and synthesis of wisdom on the achievements of earthworms and their importance to human civilization.” Intrigued, I obtained a copy and started reading.

The Earth Moved

Stewart begins her book with a chapter on Charles Darwin, who studied worms with the same diligence exhibited during the naturalist’s famous voyage on the Beagle, which eventually led to his providing additional evidence to the theories of evolution.  Just before his death in 1882, Darwin captured this fascination with earthworms and their effects on enriching soil in his The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms.  

Stewart goes on to explain how earthworms including the red wigglers or Eisenia fetida (as I now call them) work their magic on nematodes, coffee grounds, manure, bacteria, and fungi. Along the way I was able to glean tips on doing a better job with my bin full of critters.

Folded in throughout the book are interviews with researchers and “field trips” to places such an experimental sewage treatment plant in Pacifica, California where earthworms are part of the process of turning human waste into usable biosolids for agriculture. Along the way,  Stewart never loses her light-hearted anecdotal style that makes the book such a pleasure.  For example, in this passage she explains why she has not gone into the Big Worm business.

For one thing, I’d run into the same problem selling worm castings that I would if I were to go into the business selling chocolate or tawny port; I’d keep all the inventory for myself. I buy compost by the truckload for my annual mulching of the flower beds. I have to buy it because my worms only produce a few cubic feet of castings each season. If I had enough worms to generate truckloads of castings, my farm would still have only one customer: me.

I will take heed of Stewart's advice to limit my own personal consumption.

Worm Connoisseurs

Providing some additional inspiration and reflection on our natural world is Deborah Warren's short book of poems, Connoisseurs of Worms (2021). In her sixty-five poems Warren seamlessly mixes references to Greek mythology, classical paintings, as well as modern life (one poem is even entitled "PETscan"). She deeps dives into all creatures great and small, ranging from zebras, "Titian-haired" orangutans, to moles and a worm dietary favorite - nematodes. A good example of how she can work these seemingly disparate themes into one poem is demonstrated in "Mosquito in the Heart."


Mosquito in the Heart

There's nothing viable on the EKG.

So says the cardiologist.

Wrong. Clearly he missed

some small anomaly:


With an incessant and insistent hiss

under my left ribs—a falsetto whine,

whetting its proboscis,

it flits and ricochets around my heart.


The doctor's diagnosis?

He'd call it a feint of heart—if he had the wit:

He doesn't. He's just content to be smart,

and here's his opinion: It's anxiety.

It isn't in your heart—it's in your mind.

There's medication; often meditation

helps with tension. And he won't admit

that coronary insects do exist.


Just paranoia? I'm not buying it:

He'll give me white lies but—when I insist—

refer me to Cardioentomology.

You don't have to be a vermi-composter to appreciate her wit and small wisdoms. Just someone who can take time out to examine life all around us, including what is beneath our feet. 


October 28, 2021

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Books Read in 2021

  • Octavia E. Butler: Parable of the Sower (1993)
  • Judith Schalansky: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Yet Visited and Never Will (2009)
  • Translated by W.H.D Rouse: Homer's The Odyssey
  • Eva Brann: Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading The Odyssey and the Iliad (2002)
  • Judith Schalansky: An Inventory of Losses (2018)
  • Marc Bloch: The Historian's Craft (1942?)
  • Larry McMurtry: Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond (1999)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry for the Future (2020)
  • S.C. Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Park and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches (2011)
  • Jonathan Franzen: The End of the End of the Earth (2018)
  • Moyra Davey: Index Cards (2020)
  • Xan Fielding: The Stronghold: Four Seasons in the White Mountains of Crete (1953)
  • Cam Perron with Nick Chiles: Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players (2021)
  • Primo Levi: The Periodic Table (1975)
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970)
  • Barbara W. Tuchman: Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (1970)
  • Deborah Warren: Connoisseurs of Worms (2021)
  • Barbara W. Tuchman: Practicing History: Selected Essays (1982)
  • Amy Stewart: The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms (2004)
  • William Zinsser: American Places (2007)
  • Jorge Carrion: Against Amazon and Other Essays (2019-20)
  • David Shields: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (2008)
  • Mike Shropshire: Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and "The Worst Baseball Team in History" (1996)
  • Michael Gorra: The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War (2020)
  • William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
  • George S. Schuyler : Black No More (1931)
  • Drew Gilpin Faust: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008)
  • Rick Atkinson: The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777 (2018)
The book that started it all.
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